By Sallie James
The beloved community hospital once known as “The Miracle on Meadows Road” is another step closer to a merger with Baptist Health South Florida.
Boca Raton Regional Hospital and Baptist Health South Florida agreed in December on a letter of intent regarding a strategic partnership between the two health care organizations.
“This is an important first step. There is lot to be done yet,” said Thomas Chakurda, vice president of marketing for Boca Regional. “The partnership will provide substantial and positive changes in terms of clinical depth, facilities and other beneficial advances for the hospital and those it serves.”
A letter of intent clarifies key points in the relationship and is considered an announcement that the sides are moving toward a definitive agreement. That agreement should be hammered out early this year and officials expect to finalize the affiliation by summer.
Boca Regional, at 800 Meadows Road, began discussions with Baptist more than a year ago with the hope of elevating the hospital’s position as an academic referral center in South Florida. Baptist is headquartered in Coral Gables.
Baptist is the largest not-for-profit health care organization in the region, with 10 hospitals and more than 100 physician and outpatient locations from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys.
“We are most pleased to have achieved this milestone in our discussions with such a prestigious and high-quality health care organization,” said Jerry Fedele, president and CEO of Boca Raton Regional Hospital. “It is an exciting development for our hospital and our community and reflects the hard work and thoughtful interactions of our ad hoc partnership steering committee, our board and Baptist Health leadership.”
The pending merger is a huge marker of change for a community-minded hospital born out of tragedy in 1967.
The horrific poisoning deaths of two young children and the absence of a local medical center became the impetus for its construction. The town had about 10,000 residents and a group of volunteers with a mission.
Volunteer Joan Wargo, 88, who has been volunteering at Boca Regional since 1962, was delighted to hear of the forward progress.
“I think it’s great for our community with all the changes in the health care field. I think we have to go forward, and I think that Baptist South is a very good choice,” said Wargo, a member of the Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation. “[Baptist] is well organized and forward thinking, as we are. I think it will be great for the people in this community. We are well-established and highly ranked, and they are too.”
Today, this hospital has grown into a regional treatment complex with about 2,800 employees, 1,200 volunteers and approximately 800 doctors on staff. The Debbie-Rand Memorial Service League has provided more than $31 million to the hospital since the league’s formation in 1962.
“Both organizations are not-for-profit with a culture of compassion and putting the patient first,” Chakurda said. “Our cultures and missions are aligned, as are our philosophies of care and excellence. Baptist has great respect for our history, its commitment to our community that was at the heart of our founding, and our extraordinary volunteerism and philanthropic support.”
Pat Thomas, a member of the Boca Regional Hospital Board, a volunteer for 35 years for the Debbie-Rand Memorial Service League, a member of the Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation and a member of the ad hoc committee, said the merger is necessary to position the hospital for success in the future.
“I think it is not only a good thing but it’s a necessary thing,” Thomas said. “We are in a very good position right now, we are finally stable, and we have a good credit rating. We figured before something happened with Medicare/Medicaid we better position ourselves to be strong like we are now.”
She said Baptist agreed not to change the structure Boca Regional has with its doctors — some are private practice, some on staff — and will allow any money raised by the Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation to remain with Boca Regional, even though it will be part of the larger Baptist network.
“The community has received the news very well,” Thomas said. “They understand we are doing this because we need to be part of a strong organization for bargaining power and insurance rates. There is strength in numbers.”
The proposed merger would place the 400-bed Boca Raton Regional Hospital in partnership with the neighboring 400-bed Bethesda Hospital East in Boynton Beach — once a rival of sorts. Bethesda Hospital, with medical centers in east and west Boynton Beach, merged with Baptist over a 24-month period after officials signed an agreement in 2015.
Fedele, who planned to retire in 2018, has agreed to stay on through August 2019 to assist with the transition. Fedele has served as CEO of Boca Regional for 10 years.
“Our goal was to use our success in recent years to attract other providers and establish a partnership that would enhance our capabilities and mitigate the challenges of a stand-alone hospital in a complex and evolving health care industry,” Fedele said.
The merger, when complete, is not expected to affect jobs, Chakurda noted.
“It is not expected to have any immediate changes. In fact, with the partnership’s intent to accelerate and elevate our position as the preeminent academic referral center in the region with a resultant increase in utilization, employment opportunities could increase,” Chakurda said.
Boca Regional narrowed its list of potential suitors to five in spring 2018 and then selected Baptist Health South Florida for further discussions.
“We have now advanced closer to a most important evolution for our hospital, one that will accelerate and elevate our position as a preeminent academic regional medical referral center,” said Christine E. Lynn, chairman of the hospital board. “It will serve to both secure our goals and objectives and those of Baptist Health South Florida.”
Added Chakurda, “By any metric, Boca Regional has evolved into one of the outstanding health care providers in the state of Florida. Yet there is another level to which we aspire, and this partnership will most certainly facilitate our ability to reach our full potential. It certainly is an exciting opportunity for us and importantly, the patients that turn to us for care.”
A 2018 report to Baptist’s bondholders showed that the nonprofit health care system earned $405.6 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from $244.3 million in the prior fiscal year. The 2018 total included a non-operating gain of $254 million from its merger with Bethesda Health.